Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Pirate Queen

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed this show. The buzz had been so bad I thought I might be out the door at intermission, but I had no desire to leave. “The Pirate Queen” isn’t the best of musicals, but what saves it is the fascinating story it tells.
Created by Alain Boubul and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the folks who brought us “Les Miz,” “The Pirate Queen” recounts the life of Grace O’Malley, who was born on the rugged western coast of Ireland in 1530 and became a fighter for her country against the English. The feminist theme is strong in this show, with its parallel story of Queen Elizabeth I who ruled at a time of conquest and great expansion.
When Grace, engagingly played by Stephanie J. Block, comes on the scene, this conquest has been slowly and steadily eating away at Ireland, which was governed by various clans -- all ruled by men. The O’Malleys, headed by Grace’s widower father, are seafarers and pirates and Grace wants to join them.
“I have my dreams,” she sings as the show begins. “If you can do it, why can’t I? Am I to be just a woman? No, not I.”
She stows away on her father’s ship, fights like the best of them and, in short order, is made captain by her father. This doesn’t set too well with those on board.
Meanwhile, over in England, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII, is facing the same discrimination. “Many in England think a woman can’t rule,” she says, before setting out to prove them wrong.
How these women strive to have lives of their own -- one a swashbuckling fighter, the other an overdressed royal waited on hand and foot -- amidst the historical backdrop is the story that held me. I just wish the songs had been better, like all those gorgeous ones from “Les Miz.” In terms of music -- and choreography -- this show works best when it sticks to traditional Irish. When it does, it’s lovely.
As far as plots go, however, this one’s as exciting as any on Broadway. Grace’s story is dominant because she gets to do all kinds of neat stuff like get married, become chieftain when her father dies, have a baby boy, toss out her weaselly husband, get captured and imprisoned, sit down one-on-one with the queen to negotiate a peace for her country and find true love at the end. Elizabeth, played with the right amount of humor and strength by Linda Balgord, just gets to rule the British empire, sometimes so elaborately costumed she looks like an armchair. But she enjoys her power as much as Grace does,
“It’s a time for women to behave as men when men aren’t men,” she says.
And the men in this show certainly are no bargain. Grace’s husband is a low-life, part of a deal to bring two warring clans together. Feeling her power, she sends him packing. Elizabeth later does the same, dismissing the sniveling lord who seeks to be her consort, bringing on much cheering from the audience.
The one decent man, other than Grace’s father, is Tiernan (Hadley Fraser), who proves his love for Grace big time. All ends happily, that is except for the fact that Ireland is still subject to England. But Grace is optimistic, vowing that “Ireland will one day be free.”
As it is, Ireland may be subject to authority, but not Grace.
“I fought my wars on land and sea to be a woman strong and free,” she sings as the curtain closes on her remarkable story.
At intermission I heard one woman say to another, “I don’t know why people don’t like this.” I thought the same thing myself at the end. While it doesn’t have the grace of “Les Miz” in terms of musical theatre, it has its own Grace and that was enough for me.

No comments: